What NBA's Latest Salary-Cap Projection Means for Its Most Intense Rebuilds

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 22, 2015

Former Los Angeles Lakers head coach and current New York Knicks president Phil Jackson stands with Linda Rambis, left, as they attend the NBA Basketball game between the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, Thursday, March 12, 2015, in Los Angeles. The Knicks won 101-94. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

Only one word is needed to adequately sum up the NBA's salary-cap projections for the coming years: boom.

Two words are needed to describe what this means for the Association's most exhaustive rebuilding projects: plan accordingly.

The league has sent out updated salary ceilings through the 2020-21 season that reflect the nine-year, $24 billion television deal it signed last October. Draft Express' Jonathan Givony provides the inflating numbers:

Again: boom.

Although the lucrative eruptions won't kick in until 2016, the legwork needed to prepare for it starts this summer. This holds true for all teams, contenders and bottom-feeders alike, regardless of whether they're financially flexible or capped out to the moon.

But the stakes are higher for rebuilding outfits. They are the ones usually hurting for talent and pining for direction. If they had either of those things, they would be part of the NBA playoffs, not watching them from home. (That or they would be the Utah Jazz).

Three transitioning squads stand out most here: the Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks. Each hails from a flagship market, posted a bottom-four record during the regular season and, more notably, is trying to reconfigure its roster from the ground up.

Indeed, the soaring salary cap will impact how every team thinks and acts, beyond just the Lakers, Sixers and Knicks. But its effect looms largest for those shortest on talent.

Los Angeles Lakers

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

No team is in a more difficult (read: confusing) spot than the Lakers.

Four players are under guaranteed contract next season, one of whom only helps perpetuate their state of confusion: Kobe Bryant.

Sentimental value aside, the two-year, $48.5 million extension the Lakers handed him in 2013 is a wash. Bryant played in just 35 games this season, the first of his new deal, and will be 37 when 2015-16 rolls around, at which point his $25 million will ensure he remains the NBA's highest-paid player.

Having appeared in just 41 tilts since rupturing his Achilles in April 2013, Bryant's cap hit is not ideal. But the Lakers still have ample wiggle room with which to play.

While their commitments are subject to change depending on the situations of players such as Jordan Hill (team option) and Ed Davis (player option), they're still only on the hook for $35.1 million in guaranteed salaries.

Even if you factor in Jordan Clarkson's return and the money they should have to pay for their top-five protected draft pick, they're looking at more than $20 in million cap space, enough to enter the conversation for just about any available free agent.

That number stands to rise if the Lakers are able to unload Nick Young, whom they're expected to shop this summer, according to the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina. The market for inefficient gunners coming off fractured kneecaps isn't especially competitive, but moving him gives the team more than $5 million in extra plasticity.

“It can better quickly,” general manager Mitch Kupchak said, per Sports Out West's Bob Garcia IV. “We can be in the hunt quickly. A lot depends on May 19 [draft lottery] and the free-agency period.”

Aggressively pursuing free agents this summer seems like a no-brainer when looking at everything. The Lakers seldom have cap space, and making something of Bryant's probable last season demands they break open the piggy bank.

If that means landing a superstar like, say, Kevin Love (player option) or Marc Gasol, handing out a long-term offer makes sense. But assuming commitments that extend beyond next season eat up valuable cap space, all for a chance to maybe, possibly, potentially send Bryant off with a playoff berth.

This year's free-agent class is top-heavy, so if the Lakers cannot sign one of the biggest names, they're better off conserving cap space into 2016.
This year's free-agent class is top-heavy, so if the Lakers cannot sign one of the biggest names, they're better off conserving cap space into 2016.Brandon Dill/Associated Press

Rather than invest in Bryant's last hurrah, the Lakers do have the option of waiting—one that's far more appealing if they're looking to start from scratch.

With the salary cap set to approach $90 million that summer, they would have a chance to retain some promising prospects, account for the requisite cap holds and enter free agency with more than $70 million to burn through.

Below is a look at their guaranteed-salary commitments over the next two seasons, with some predictions inserted for certain players on non-guaranteed deals (Clarkson) and team options (Julius Randle). Note that all totals are rough and predicated on Los Angeles renouncing rights to others. Also note that minimum cap holds are handed out for every unused spot below the league-imposed roster minimum of 12:

Lakers' Guaranteed Salary Predictions
Players2015-162016-17
Kobe Bryant$25,000,000N/A
Nick Young$5,219,169$5,443,918
Julius Randle$3,132,240$3,267,120 (Team Option)
Ryan Kelly$1,724,250Qualifying Offer
Jordan Clarkson$845,059 (Non-guaranteed)Qualifying
2015 Top-Five Pick (median salary)$3,818,900$3,990,700
Minimum Cap HoldsSix @ $525,093 = $3,150,558Nine @ $543,471 = $4,891,239
Total$42,890,176$17,592,977
Salary Cap$67,100,000$89,000,000
Difference$24,209,824$71,407,023
Basketball Insiders and RealGM

All 29 other NBA teams should have some level of cap space to fiddle around with by that point, and the Lakers, in this scenario, would be working off another tough season. But $70-plus million stands out.

Not only is that enough money to get in a room with Kevin Durant, but it's also enough coin to then build an entire team around him. That's even after accounting for the rise in individual player salaries. And that, in turn, diminishes the urgency behind turning Bryant's swan song into an expensive venture.

Blank financial slates are rare in the NBA, especially in impatient markets such as Los Angeles. But if the Lakers show restraint for just one more summer, they'll have unprecedented spending power, without the responsibility of tailoring their signings to Bryant's play style.

Philadelphia 76ers 

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

This infusion of money into the salary cap stresses one thing above all else for the Sixers: It's time to loosen their grip on those purse strings.

"Thus far, Sixers management has shown that it prefers the route of rejecting veteran experience in favor of giving playing time to developing youngsters," wrote Philly.com's John Smallwood in February. "And for the patient soul, that may ultimately prove to be the correct approach."

"Now probably isn't the best time to think about free-agent options for the Sixers because it will probably be at least two more seasons before they are ready to make a big splash," he added. "A lot of things can change during that time, but the bottom line will remain the same."

Too bad, so sad. The Sixers need to change. They can still develop prospects at their leisure, but they would be remiss not to take advantage of their current position.

Depending on how the ping-pong balls bounce, the Sixers could own the rights to three first-round draft picks this summer: their own, the Lakers' (top-five protected) and the Miami Heat's (top-10 protected).

At minimum, they're assured of adding at least one more first-round prospect to a core of Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric. All of these players will be on rookie-scale deals that, as of now, won't be impacted by the salary-cap explosion.

The Sixers have to plan for the extension of those they plan to keep, as well as elevated player salaries in general.
The Sixers have to plan for the extension of those they plan to keep, as well as elevated player salaries in general.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

But the Sixers also need to plan for keepers. Noel will be eligible for an extension in 2016, Embiid in 2017 and the first-rounders they draft this year—assuming they're all stateside—in 2018. The extensions they offer will come under drastically different terms and be relative to the rising cap.

That increases the importance of adding talent through free agency this summer. They have just $31.9 million in all-inclusive commitments for next season, giving them as much flexibility as any other team.

Spending that money on players who can make an immediate impact might bilk certain youngsters of playing time, but it's an opportunity to hoard talent at a discount. Any contract signed this summer under a $67.1 million salary cap will look much better relative to an $89 million ceiling in 2016 and $108 million canopy in 2017.

As ESPN.com's Marc Stein notes:

High-end free-agency splashes will be exponentially harder for the Sixers to make when they're shelling out greater dollar amounts to outside talent and incumbent extension-eligible building blocks.

Like most other teams, they'll have plenty of options. But if there was ever a time for them to stray from their draft-dependent ways, it's now, when they're able to invest in who they don't have before doing so, while also reinvesting in those whom they already employ.

New York Knicks 

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Nothing has changed for the Knicks. They're still free-agency coup or bust moving forward.

Much like the Lakers, they do not own the rights to their 2016 first-rounder. Unlike the Lakers, biding time for a cleaner slate makes little sense. The Knicks are married to an over-30 Carmelo Anthony for the next four years, so waiting for anything isn't much of an option.

Striking now is also imperative because they have a head start on the rest of the league. The 2016 free-agency class is deeper, and it will get deeper still if players sign short-term deals this summer to position themselves for another foray into the open market. But that influx of options will be met by a surplus of suitors.

Most NBA teams will have plenty of cap room, thanks to the financial boon. The Knicks will have a tougher time poaching top players, such as Al Horford, Mike Conley and Durant, when there are 20 or more other teams in the mix, many of which will be better positioned to win a title.

Hence team president Phil Jackson's continued stance on New York's offseason approach, per The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring:

Fortunately, the Knicks are in a unique position that doesn't force them to wait.

Only four players are under guaranteed contract for next season—five if we include the return of Langston Galloway—putting the Knicks in prime position to land meetings with all the big names, from Gasol and Love, to Deandre Jordan and Paul Millsap, to Goran Dragic (player option) and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Here's a rough look at their situation in the coming summers:

Knicks' Guaranteed Salary Predictions
Players2015-162016-17
Carmelo Anthony$22,875,000$24,559,380
Jose Calderon$7,402,812$7,708,427
Tim Hardaway Jr.$1,304,520$2,281,605 (Team Option)
Cleanthony Early$845,059Qualifying Offer
Langston Galloway$845,059 (Non-guaranteed)Qualifying Offer
2015 Top-Five Pick (median salary)$3,818,900$3,990,700
Minimum Cap HoldsSix @ $525,093 = $3,150,558Eight @ $543,471 = $4,347,768
Total$40,241,908$42,887,880
Salary Cap$67,100,000$89,000,000
Difference$26,858,092$46,112,120
Basketball Insiders and RealGM

Anthony's deal actually helps them beyond 2015. Earning nearly $24.6 million for 2016-17, he doesn't look like much of a bargain, but as the cap moves, so too does perception.

A player such as Anthony, with 10-plus seasons of experience, can earn a maximum salary that saps up 35 percent of the cap, according to Larry Coon's CBA FAQ. While offers also factor in Basketball Related Income (BRI) and are usually lower than the mandated percentages, 35 percent of $89 million is more than $31.1 million.

Signing Anthony to a max deal last summer essentially saved the Knicks around $6.6 million for 2016-17. That is not insubstantial and will go a long way in their ability to court free agents. It's maneuverability later and a selling point now.

And now is important.

For now, they're one of a few franchises with max space to spare. In another year, they'll be one of many, trying to out-pitch a field that includes powerhouses, contenders and, well, just about everyone else—a league-wide skirmish they're more likely to win if it's preceded by the kind of free-agent triumph worth the price of a lost 2014-15 season. 

Salary information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM unless otherwise cited. Draft pick commitments courtesy of RealGM.

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